Reflecting on How We Work: An Interview with Hannah Stamler

A rectangle features the words "HOW WE WORK" inside it in blue and black. To the right of the rectangle is a pen.

Logo by Ara Eagan

During the Spring Semester of 2021, one of the main Center for Digital Humanities initiatives was the How We Work series. The series brought together former and current CDH staff, the GradFUTURES team, and graduate students to discuss and learn more about the changing structures, expectations, and possibilities of university work.

“The GradFUTURES team was delighted to work with the CDH in the development of this important series, which is in keeping with our goal of supporting graduate students preparing for futures within and beyond the academy,” said James M. Van Wyck, Assistant Dean for Professional Development at the Graduate School. “This work depends on a campus-wide coalition of faculty, administrators, graduate alumni, and graduate students, and highlights ways we can collectively reimagine professional development—and the PhD—for the 21st century.”

Hannah Stamler (G4) is a PhD candidate in History and, along with CDH Faculty Director Meredith Martin, was instrumental in helping to organize and lead the How We Work series. Hannah recently received the GradFUTURES Clio Award, which recognizes significant contributions to the professional development of Princeton graduate students.

Van Wyck noted that “Hannah’s leadership on the global level and attention to the granular details will make the How We Work series a model for similar programming in the future.”

To start the series, Hannah interviewed Meredith Martin about How We Work earlier this year.

Now, to close out this semester, I invited Hannah to answer questions about her experience organizing the series, what she learned, and her hopes for the series in the future.

How did you become involved with the How We Work series?

I became involved with How We Work through my University Administrative Fellowship (UAF), a GradFUTURES program that lets students work in different campus units under the supervision of a faculty or staff mentor.

Meredith Martin, CDH faculty director, put out a call for a UAF to help with an event series she was hoping to plan for the 2020/21 academic year. The idea was still very new at that point, but her goal was to create events that could shed light on how work gets done at the CDH, and also foster connections between students and university staff around professional development issues.

As someone who wanted to gain more programming experience, was interested in learning more about DH, and invested in graduate professional development it truly seemed like a tailor-made opportunity for me. I feel very lucky that Meredith chose me to help develop her idea and that I could be there at the beginning of what I hope will be a long-running series!

You were very involved in planning the How We Work series, from promoting the series to interviewing the panelists. What did you learn from organizing the series?

I’d say that my biggest lesson is that successful events involve lots of advance preparation. Putting together How We Work was a multistep process. I had to devote considerable time up front to research and thinking through how our series could fit into the landscape of existing programming at Princeton. It was only after I put in this thought, and had a firm idea for How We Work, that I could move on to the actual steps of planning, promoting, and executing the series—all of which were more involved and time-consuming than I envisioned (especially during this strange and difficult year of remote work).

Successful events also become successful through collaboration—and that is my second biggest lesson. Academic work in the humanities can certainly be collaborative; this is something that How We Work reinforced for me. But in the end, a humanities dissertation is single-authored work. My UAF, by contrast, was collaborative from the beginning. I worked closely with Meredith and Rebecca Munson on the series’ conception. Camey VanSant and Mana Winters were essential to getting the events off the ground. Ara Eagan did an amazing job helping me with graphic design and social media promotion. And last but certainly not least, James M. Van Wyck offered a huge amount of support and advice from the GradFUTURES side. I’m proud that I got to work with all of these people and am reminded that work can be as, if not more, valuable when done together.

Hannah Stamler smiles at the camera

Hannah Stamler, a Ph.D. candidate in history, was instrumental in organizing the How We Work series.

How did your idea of academic work change as a result of organizing and participating in this series?

One of the biggest ways the series changed my thinking about academic work was that it underscored how collaborative humanities scholarship can be. All of the speakers talked about the importance of academic community, and about how being part of a larger network of scholars, librarians, archivists, and developers motivated them in their own research. While they were speaking specifically about the DH community, this applies to any academic field. It’s important to remember, especially now, that we are never actually working in isolation and are always part of a larger network.

Another idea that I think relates to debunking the myth of the “lone wolf” academic is debunking, to a certain degree, the notion of an academic meritocracy. By that I mean, we need to be critical of the idea that the few tenure-track humanities jobs out there go to the people who are the “best,” and that if we want them, it is only a matter of working harder or of pushing ourselves further to get them. You can work really hard, be an excellent scholar, have all the right qualifications and still not get the tenure-track job. The speakers in session two, Rebecca Munson and Grant Wythoff, spoke really candidly and eloquently about this.

While I realize that, to some, this might seem like a depressing takeaway, for me it had the opposite effect. Knowing that your fate is not entirely in your hands, and remembering that academia is above all a community, takes some pressure off of the individual scholar. As I move forward in my PhD, I want to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to seek help when needed and okay to work at my own pace.

What advice about work did you find particularly useful or paradigm-shifting?

It’s hard to pick a single piece of advice, there were so many good ones! But here are two that stand out:

The first is that, while you should give some thought to professional development in grad school, it’s unwise to be overly strategic and try to “game the system.” All of the speakers recognized that DH skills like coding or project management might be useful for their resumes, but none of them got into DH for practical reasons alone. They were mainly motivated by a personal interest in DH and a sense that it would help them accomplish their research goals. With the benefit of hindsight, pursuing DH turned out to be “strategic” for them. But having a DH or DH-adjacent job wouldn’t be a great outcome for someone who wasn’t genuinely invested in the field.

In sum, I was reminded that grad students have to balance pragmatism with passion—don’t just pursue an area of study or a course or a credential because you think it will look good on a resume or unlock a job opportunity. Zoe LeBlanc summarized this really well in her discussion on coding in session one: It’s a great skill to have if you actually want to code; but as she said, “if you don’t enjoy it, please don’t force yourself to do it!”

The second was Jim Casey talking about his “committee of no”—such a good term that has really stuck with me! Jim confessed that he has a “committee of no,” a small group of friends and mentors who he runs opportunities by before he takes them on. Hearing about this was a great reminder that we are empowered to occasionally say no to things if we are overcommitted or decide that the opportunity offered is, frankly, not worth the time and energy involved. There’s a lot of pressure on grad students and early-career scholars to say yes to every conference, every committee, every review, and so on. But sometimes the key to getting great work done is, in fact, saying no to some opportunities so that you can focus on the ones most important to you.

What do you hope participants of the series (those who listened to the panels) gained from this series?

I hope that participants, above all, walked away with a greater understanding of what “academic” work is and the many shapes it can take. As our panelists in the second session really hit home, the idea that academic work equals professorship needs revision. Rebecca and Grant’s jobs both entail work we’d deem highly academic. We need to reconsider the term “alternative academia” in light of this and also in light of how common it is for PhD students to go on to careers outside of tenure-track professorships. It’s inaccurate to call these outcomes “alternative.”

In a similar vein, I hope that grad students in the audience left our first panel with an expanded sense of what “traditional” academic jobs are like. As Jim Casey highlighted, professors do a lot that falls outside of the scope of teaching, research, and writing. All of us striving for careers as professors would do well to understand the many layers of even “traditional” academic jobs and to acknowledge how hard and varied the work of a professor is.

Will there be future How We Work series? If so, do you have an idea on what themes or questions they will focus on?

I hope that some form of How We Work will continue indefinitely—ideally in person, which we didn’t get to do this year for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, I won’t be leading the series next year due to my academic research. But I’m excited for another grad student to take it over and expand it according to their vision!

As for my ideas for How We Work’s future: One is to move it to different units on campus. There are tons of Princeton staff members with PhDs who have leveraged their degrees into fascinating and enriching careers. I’d love to hear from them. Another idea is to expand the series to include staff members at Princeton who might not have PhDs but who do work that graduate students are interested in knowing more about.

Though I think the heart of How We Work is live events—where people can meet and talk face to face—it would also be interesting to consider future digital components. I’d love to see a How We Work YouTube series that shadows a day-in-the life of different staff members on campus, for instance!

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